my employee makes off-color jokes

A reader writes:

I’m a fairly new manager (got my first direct report at the beginning of this year, and my second a few months ago). Both my employees are generally great, but the newer one, Fergus, semi-frequently makes jokes that I think aren’t quite suitable for the workplace. The most recent example that’s making me think I need to say something is that, the other day, another staff member (Martin) was in our area and made a joke that referred to drugs but in a fairly oblique way. Martin then said, “I’m glad Katie (HR manager) isn’t here!” Cue some laughter and eye rolling. Fergus then responded with, “Ahh well, Katie’s a huge cokehead anyway!” More laughter but this time there was a tone of shock to it, and someone said, “You really shouldn’t say things like that!” in a kind of jokey-scandalized way.

Obviously, not a great thing for him to have said. And as it happens we have a review meeting coming up next week, so I think it’s a good time for me to address it. Like I said, he’s made jokes like this several times in his few months here (including things like, referencing orgies or other X-rated stuff — not in a way of saying it’s something he does, just referencing them).

I’m struggling in how to bring this up with him for a number of reasons:

1) The Katie/cokehead thing was so obviously a joke — no one who heard it could reasonably believe he was actually saying that Katie’s a big-time cocaine user. It’s not like he was harming her reputation, so I guess part of me is struggling with why he shouldn’t have said it, other than the way it reflected badly on him. (I’m clearer on how to address the sex-reference jokes, as a side note.)

2) The culture of my workplace does tend to be quite collegial and jokey generally, and due to high-pressure projects, familiarity builds quickly here. So, some teasing and ribbing is not uncommon. (Let me stress — good natured! Not things like unkind personal comments, or dissatisfaction with someone’s work.) I’m not really sure how to separate this from Fergus’s comment when explaining why it’s not good to say these things.

3) So far, my relationship with my reports has been fairly pally. They’re generally great. I’m clear with them about hierarchy, assigning tasks, giving feedback, reviewing when things go wrong, etc., but “disciplining” in any way hasn’t really come up yet. Also, I like to joke around as well, and while I’m certainly careful not to cross lines or say anything hurtful or harmful, I do tend to swear quite a lot — probably more than is ideal, but totally not unusual in my workplace. (I can quite happily say the word “fuck” in a meeting with the managing director, for instance.) So it’s not like I’m super buttoned up and constantly talking in HR-style manager-speak. Which, I’m sure most people aren’t, managers included, but I don’t know if this will make things more difficult from a walking-the-walk perspective.

Fergus is fairly young (mid-20s) and this is only his second job out of university. I genuinely don’t think he’s trying to be especially edgy or subversive, it’s more to do with not knowing the line of what’s appropriate to say at work vs when you’re in a purely social setting. I think he’ll be receptive to feedback. I just want to make sure that my feedback is clear and actionable.

Yeah, this is thing some people early in their careers struggle with. They see the culture isn’t totally buttoned-up and figure, “Hey, people are saying the word ‘fuck,’ I can relax here” … without realizing that some things still aren’t appropriate for work and what those things are. They miss the nuance that generally gets more intuitive with more work experience.

You probably don’t need to have a big, awkward conversation with Fergus, though. Don’t frame it in your head as “disciplining” at all; it’s just guiding him on office norms because he’s still learning them.

I’d say it this way: “I wanted to mention that I know you were just kidding with that joke about Katie being a cokehead the other day — obviously — but you shouldn’t joke at work about people using drugs. Everyone in the conversation knew you were kidding, but you never know if someone might overhear and not realize it’s a joke. And even if you’re sure no one will overhear, that kind of joke can raise questions about your judgment, which I don’t want for you.” You could also say, “In general, don’t joke about sex, drugs, or religion at work. It’s easy to assume everyone will find the same things funny that you do, but those are topics where people often have very different comfort levels — even if they don’t show you that, and in fact even if they laugh along — and as a general rule those topics just aren’t appropriate for work.”

The “even if they laugh along” caveat is an important one to stress, because that’s a lesson that it takes some people a while to learn (and some people never learn it).

{ 233 comments… read them below }

  1. Marie*

    I think the “you never know what someone is going to overhear” angle is a great one here. I have been misunderstood many times in my career, and it’s SUPER awkward if the misunderstanding is because of a dumb joke (as opposed to misunderstanding something mundane).

    1. TinaTurner*

      I’m thinking “You never know what’s in peoples’ heads” — and bringing up these subjects too much can make him look bad. It’s creepy if someone injects sex into the workplace out of the blue. Comedy is about surprise but I don’t want to know he’s thinking about certain things at the office.

    2. Analytical Tree Hugger*

      Agreed, a lot of my humor is a tad dry and/or deadpan, which is why I tend to be sparing with it while at work. Misunderstandings are definitely a thing.

      1. Anomie*

        ESP when management is throwing around the F word and this report is joking about coke heads and orgies. This is a complaint waiting to happy. No one is acting professionally. This isn’t banter.

    3. T'Cael Zaniidor Kilyle*

      Indeed. And while it’s likely that nobody in the office will think that Katie really is coming to work blitzed out of her mind on cocaine, a vendor or client who doesn’t know her may be another matter.

      Also: The joke isn’t even funny.

      1. Splendid Colors*

        Jokes referencing sex, drugs, and religion are often not funny–they’re generating a shocked laugh, not genuine amusement. I took improv lessons back in the day from a director who had a standing rule for her performance troupe(s): Performers should avoid jokes about sex or drugs because they’re a cheap laugh based on shock value. Once someone’s introduced sex or drugs into an improv game, it’s almost impossible to drag the scene away from that subject. (So clearly you don’t need folks at work continuing that train of thought even if they’re professional enough not to voice their thoughts.)

        Scalzi’s Law applies to most of these attempts at humor: The failure mode of “clever” is “a**hole.”

        1. Hannah Lee*

          I’d never heard of that Law, but that is so true.

          And thanks for the comedy insight.

          There’s one more don’t I’d add to the list along with sex, drugs and religion – violence. I’ve worked with people who would mention violence, ie mocking over the top rage, outrage over trivial stuff or work conflicts and it always put me on edge because of my personal history, but also because workplace violence is a thing that happens.

          Using faux/play acted violence or mentions of violence in the workplace usually made me wonder if the person was thinking like that a lot, imagining harming coworkers or friends which … is not great for building collaborative work relationships.

    4. Cedrus Libani*

      Back in college, I had a co-worker who kept a list of “Rules for Future Astronauts” over her desk. This was a life-advice thing written by an astronaut; she was an aero-astro major, it was on-brand. One of the rules was something like this: “Avoid sarcasm. Even if people appreciate the humor, they will remember the bite, and they won’t fully trust you again.”

      Had to sit with that one for awhile. I did use sarcasm, a lot. It was a way to connect with people; I could make them laugh. But it was also true that this had a way of keeping people at arm’s length. I made a conscious effort to knock it off, and I do think it makes me more approachable.

      (That was also the job where I very nearly got fired on the spot because the wrong person overheard the wrong bit of sarcasm – so I had that to think about too.)

    5. just some guy*

      It can also work well packaged with “and you never know what people’s experiences have been”. Even if everybody knows the joke about drugs is a joke, it might not be a fun joke for people who’ve had bad experiences with their own or other people’s drug use.

    6. WillowSunstar*

      Well and you also never know if someone might take a joke seriously, either due to being unfamiliar with America social cues, being socially awkward in general, not knowing the person, and so forth. I think jokes at work should be relegated to things that won’t potentially hurt someone’s feelings or their career if misunderstood, but maybe that is just me.

      1. BubbleTea*

        I encountered this, very painfully, in one of my first jobs. A more senior member of staff was counting the petty cash and joking around with some other colleagues. I made a crack about her buying everyone lunch or something (I don’t remember exactly but the implication was, with the petty cash) and she told me off quite severely. At the time I was incredibly hurt and I still think she did it a bit too harshly, but in hindsight we were in a situation where clients (whose first language mostly wasn’t English) could hear us and if they took me seriously that would look extremely bad. I didn’t fully understand the distinction between the jokes she was making and my joke back then but now I can see it. Of course if she’d explained it then, I’d have learned much faster!

      2. allathian*

        It’s not just you. Which jokes you find funny can also depend on who else is around to hear it. I mean, I find some jokes very funny in spite of the fact that they’re sexist, racist, dirty, or all three, like some “Jewish princess” jokes. But because I don’t want my coworkers to know that I actually think those jokes can be funny, I wouldn’t laugh if I heard a joke like that at work, nor would I ever tell a joke like that at work.

  2. Pam*

    The original joke was bad, as was the “ooh, what if Mom heard?” Making it personal, about another employee who wasn’t there to protect herself was worse.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        The original joke was “a joke that referred to drugs but in a fairly oblique way”. So we don’t know the exact words but we know the general topic.

        1. Julia*

          Yes, actually my point in making the above comment was to push back on the notion that knowing the “general topic” is enough to pass judgment on whether a remark is “bad”. Sorry if that didn’t come across clearly.

      2. Esmeralda*

        The other person who needs to be aware that “you never know who is listening”, is the OP.

        OP was in the room and did not say anything when Martin made his original joke (maybe it was an ok one, that depends), when Martin snarked about HR (not ok), and when Fergus told a lie (he intended it as a joke, but it’s actually a smear) about another employee. Other people are watching and listening, and making judgments as to whether you are a safe person to bring concerns to, whether you are a person who thinks “jokes” like this are ok. Could be someone who reports to you. Could be someone you report to. Could be someone who you want/need to work with. It speaks to your character and it affects your reputation.

        I’d encourage the OP to be ready for such situations and to have thought out in advance what appropriate responses are.

        Many many years ago, I was teaching a college first year course. I encourage open discussion. A student took that to mean, I can say anything, and came out with a homophobic remark. I was so shocked, I said nothing. After class, another student, said, Can I talk to you? and then told me how disappointed she was that I said nothing.

        I have never by-standered since — but I had to figure out how to respond to future instances. “I was too shocked to respond” is common, but not acceptable, especially not more than once.

        I encourage the OP to figure out how not to be a bystander in the future.

        1. starfox*

          OP is Fergus’s manager, not OP’s. Sure, making a reference to drugs isn’t the most professional behavior ever, but it’s also not on OP to police everyone else in the office.

          1. Esmeralda*

            Fergus’s remark is the one that most needed a response. But I think the other remark needs a response too — as in, “Seriously, Martin?” Not the same level of response as Fergus’ remark, but yes, I think a response to Martin is appropriate.

            Someone makes a jerk remark, it is ok to call them on it. Don’t have to be their manager to do so.

            1. Julia*

              Well, my point above was that you just don’t know what the remark Martin made was. An “oblique reference to drugs” could be any of a huge range of remarks, some which might need to be called out and others which are fine in some workplaces. This stuff is so, so context-dependent.

              I also disagree with you about the “glad HR’s not here” comment – I don’t think that sort of lighthearted joke is always inappropriate. Sometimes it’s benign and funny.

              1. Splendid Colors*

                This question is such a good example of what my improv director warned us about, though.

                Martin makes an “oblique reference to drugs” and Fergus ups the ante to “lighthearted accusation that HR is a cokehead.” If an improv troupe, whose entire job is to create humor, can avoid the black hole of NSFW topics and be funny, people in the workplace can still have a sense of humor while leaving sex, drugs, and religion out of their jokes.

                “I’m glad HR isn’t here” would be appropriate if someone accidentally made a double entendre, but intentionally telling jokes they *know* aren’t work-appropriate is… inappropriate. And probably not as funny as they think it is.

        2. This is Artemesia*

          Really good point. I can remember running a class or two where I failed to respond on the spot to something inappropriate – out of not knowing what to say or do — and always regretted it. And it made me think about how to respond in the future. A lot of dysfunctional workplace behavior occurs because the boss or manager doesn’t stop it when it starts and it snowballs. Sometimes publicly saying something is the right step and if one can’t or doesn’t then following up and saying something privately is important so things don’t slide.

        3. Julia*

          “when Fergus told a lie (he intended it as a joke, but it’s actually a smear) about another employee.”

          This strikes me as an overstatement. The humor usually comes from the idea that the person is as far as you can imagine from being a “cokehead” (or [insert characteristic]). So it’s not a lie or a smear, but a joke.

          Yes, it’s not appropriate in this specific context of the workplace, but it’s not in the same league as a homophobic remark.

          I suppose you could argue it’s problematic if someone takes him seriously (a possibility I personally think is pretty remote). But it’s definitely not a lie, unless we decide to change the definition of “lie”. It’s a false statement, but it’s not intended to deceive, which is what makes something a lie.

          1. Zephy*

            It’s only a joke if you know it’s a joke. A new employee, a client, a vendor, someone who doesn’t know the HR person from Adam won’t necessarily know it’s a joke, and that’s the point being made in this thread – you don’t know who’s listening.

        4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Yes. My colleague was wondering whether she could explain that her frequent absences were for fertility treatment to our boss (some appointments were temperature-dependent, meaning we didn’t know exactly when she’d be out – it’s easier to be understanding and cooperative when you know why).
          Then she heard him joking with the sales guy who knew someone doing the same course of treatment, he was saying he’d be happy to show them how to do it. OK, this is not someone we can confide in regarding such matters.
          So we just all lied through our teeth and hoped she’d get in before the boss so we could pretend she’d been there all along – it worked, and so did the treatment, she had twins.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, I think along with the “sex, drugs and religion” joke, it might be good to add “jokes about specific people” are often best left alone or kept very, very gentle. Until I entered the work world I didn’t realize how sensitive some people are about teasing – reactions can really be all over the map. And you don’t know someone’s history with bullying or whatever. Public office conversations may be best left to ‘Garfield style’ “ack- Mondays!” humor.

      1. 3lla*

        Yeah – I’m a great worker but very sensitive to criticism and teasing. I know I’m more sensitive than average, but that doesn’t make my rejection sensitive dysphoria shut off.

      2. Payne's Grey*

        As someone with a history of being bullied, thank you. I can rationally know something is intended lightheartedly, I can really want to laugh it off and be fine with it, but my limbic system fully believes it is a threat and I can’t just switch that off. Lots of people have come by their sensitivity honestly.

      3. Beth*

        I’d frame it as “Don’t insult or abuse people and pretend it’s funny.” It applies to practical “jokes” as well.

    2. OP*

      Hi, OP here – you’re so right about the “ooh what if mom heard!” nature of the initial joke. When I referred to eye-rolling in my letter, I was one of the eye-rollers. This is kind of a side note but, I really hate when people treat HR like they can’t possibly overhear anything resembling a joke or their heads will fall off in outrage. Also for various reasons, people sometimes mistakenly think my job falls under the HR umbrella, so I sometimes get someone making a shitty problematic joke, then have them say “whoa-hoh, I guess I shouldn’t say that in front of you!” to which I have replied, “I’m not HR, but that’s not why you shouldn’t say that in front of me, or in general”

      1. ursula*

        Yes to all of this and good for you! I have a pretty permissive sense of humour and I have worked with people who constantly make ‘edgy’ jokes at work, and even when our politics align and I generally like the person (which is not a given) it is the most exhausting thing to be around. There is social pressure on the people hearing the joke to figure out the appropriate response, and nobody knows whether that is polite laughter or objecting or pausing to give the person the attention they clearly want so that you can all move on or just move on as quickly as possible. Nobody needs to be navigating that at work.

      2. Beth*

        OP, thank you SO VERY MUCH for being willing to shut down bad behavior in the workplace. Please keep up the good work!!

  3. voyager1*

    So what exactly made Martin’s comment okay and not Fergus? Martin brought up Katie first!

    Honestly maybe a talk to the whole team might be in order IF you feel you need to say anything. But singling out Fergus and not Martin seems like a little bullying like to me.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Who said it’s okay? The LW doesn’t manage Martin (“another staff member (Martin) was in our area”) and doesn’t manage a “whole team.” The LW only manages Fergus and another employee.

      1. Mockingjay*

        I’d argue that a manager in general has a responsibility to set tone, regardless of who reports to them.

        OP could have responded right away: “Whoa, people! Let’s keep our coworkers out of jokes, please. Thanks!” Or “Hey, let’s keep the humor a little cleaner with no names, please!” Etc.

        The fact that a coworker did say something shows that the workplace culture may not be as accepted as OP thinks. They can do real good by resetting expectations within their team, as well as interactions with other departments.

        1. SomebodyElse*

          Agree with many of these statements… I used to toss out a “Keep it PG-13 please” to everyone regardless of reporting structure. I found it was a good way to set expectation that most people can relate to. Meaning a couple of “damn”s or “shit” may be ok if used sparingly, but for the most part it covers the excessive swearing and adult themes.

          I think the OP needs to find their voice when situations come up, because it’s more effective to course correct in the moment vs. doing it as a big conversation later. It will also help them establish the boundaries they expect people to have around them if that makes sense.

          1. allathian*

            Yeah, that sounds good, in theory at least. But in an environment where swearing is acceptable, it’s not going to fly. Especially not from someone who lets out the f-word herself.

            1. JustaTech*

              I feel like this is one of those very hard to explain but easy to “feel” things – it’s one thing to swear (particularly as an exclamation like if a computer or instrument does something unexpected/bad, or you drop something) but it’s another thing to use a whole crude phrase.

              Like, I had a coworker who was the queen of crude phrases that started at “fat cats” to describe upper management (disdainfully) and escalated to the phrase “well the first step is to remove your a**hat” (complete with gesture) – directed at people she thought were being stupid in their job. For some reason that always felt much worse to me than “This F’ing counter!” Probably because the a**hat comment was directed at people, rather than in inanimate object, and also was a much longer phrase (not something that could “slip out”).

        2. Curmudgeon in California*

          This.

          It’s one thing to say “This fucking computer is broken”, and something quite different to say “Fucking Jocelyn broke this computer”.

          Same with drug jokes. “They must have been on coke to write this nonsense.” is different that “Suzie in HR is a cokehead.”

          The line in don’t verbally attack individuals, even in jest, by name or even description whether they are present or not. Inanimate things don’t have feelings, you can cuss at them, joke about them and slander them. People, OTOH, do have feelings and probably won’t appreciate the jokes, cussing or slander.

          1. allathian*

            Yes, this is a rule I go by, both at work and at home. I swear when I stub my toe, or when my employer’s VPN crashes just as I’m saving a big file on the network drive, etc. But I don’t swear at people, or verbally attack them even behind their backs.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          My husband used “let’s not go there” with customers. It got the point across and kind of reminded customers that he was on the clock, also.

        4. Eyes Kiwami*

          I agree. I can see a subtle difference between Martin and Fergus’s jokes, but if you’re trying to explain where the line is to someone whose judgment is recalibrating, I think the message will be very confused. Martin and OP are giving Fergus the wrong cues to indicate what jokes are OK and what aren’t. I think it’s better for OP to address the tone overall rather than try to teach Fergus why you can joke about drugs and Katie in HR, but not Katie in HR doing drugs.

    2. Wisteria*

      Martin did not insult Katie by personalizing drug remarks. He made a general drug joke and made a joke connecting Katie to her professional role. Fergus personalized the drug reference by connecting it to Katie and her habits. That’s the difference. Martin walked up to the line and poked his toe over it. Fergus backed up to get momentum and launched himself over the line.

      1. voyager1*

        And see that whole line walking thing is my problem. The whole conversation really shouldn’t have happened. I would talk to everyone even the those who laughed. Singling out Fergus just does sit well with me. But YMMV.

        1. Wisteria*

          Martin did not @ Katie.
          Fergus did @ Katie.
          Singling out Fergus for something only he did is a-ok.

    3. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      Because Martin didn’t say Katie was a cokehead? I actually took Martin’s joke as a light way of letting Fergus know that the joke was out of bounds (good thing HR didn’t hear you say that=that was not quite an appropriate thing to say).

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        1. Martin made subtle drug joke.
        2. Martin followed up with a joking comment about Katie of HR.
        3. Fergus made rude comment (that he thought was funny) about Katie.

    4. Person from the Resume*

      There’s no hint of bullying in this letter. And it’s not bullying to provide valid feedback to someone who needs it especially not when your someone’s supervisor and they have a habit of doing something that’s unprofessional. And even if the LW had standing to talk to Martin about it, he should do that one-on-one and not tell anyone that they also disciplined/talked to Martin too.

      Providing feedback needed by or a few people to everyone is bad management. Very often the people who need the feedback don’t even realize it’s about them and don’t get the message and other people get frustrated because they know enough no to make that mistake themselves.

    5. Irish Teacher*

      I think there’s a difference between “good thing Katie didn’t hear me talk about drugs. She might disapprove” and “ha, ha, Katie is a cokehead.” The first is arguably borderline and might be inappropriate depending on company culture and on the relationship between Katie and Martin (and in context, it sounds less like “Katie is uptight and would judge me” and more like “I’m glad nobody in authority heard me mention drugs”). The latter kind of crosses the line.

      As a teacher, a student making a joke about drugs and then saying “glad the principal didn’t hear” would be fine. Somebody else saying “ha, ha, the principal is a cokehead” would not.

      Now, we don’t have Martin’s joke, so maybe that was really inappropriate too or maybe he DID more meant it as “Katie is uptight” and not just “woops, shouldn’t say this at work,” but I can definitely imagine jokes he might have made that wouldn’t really come near calling a colleague a cokehead, even in jest.

      1. Office Lobster DJ*

        Agreed. Martin saying “glad [HR] didn’t hear that one” — which is how I read the letter — is Martin acknowledging he was crossing a line. Whether he was gleeful or regretful about that, we don’t really know. Either way, nothing to do with Katie herself, really. It’s much different than Martin saying “glad Katie didn’t hear that one [because we all know how much of a joyless buzzkill Katie is].” If that’s the case, then the problem is much bigger.

    6. Myrin*

      It seems like Martin brought up “Katie = HR” whereas Fergus said “Katie = the person”.
      Martin meant Katie in her function as head of HR which could be replaced by anyone who’s head of HR but Fergus meant Katie specifically.

    7. starfox*

      I don’t think OP is saying that Martin’s comment was okay, but he’s not Martin’s manager. He’s Fergus’s. It’s not “bullying” to address your subordinate’s behavior.

    8. Jora Malli*

      As a person who has been bullied by their boss, no. Just, absolutely no. Holding your subordinates to a standard of behavior in the workplace is not bullying.

    9. HoHumDrum*

      I mean, I think saying “Good thing HR isn’t here!” is not a particularly rough joke, and one I’ve heard at work before. “Haha yeah, HR does drugs!!” is a very different scale of joke IMO.

    10. Free Meerkats*

      Yeah, if the oblique joke is OK, the direct joke is as well. – Spoken as a direct communicator; I’ve discovered that if I say something direct that is exactly the same as the passive-aggressive comment that just passed by, I get the side eye.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        Yeah, if the oblique joke is OK, the direct joke is as well.

        Well, no, that’s not how it works. One was just a joke that mentioned drugs, while the other was a joke about another employee being addicted to drugs. Those are on two different levels.

      2. Joielle*

        Interesting! I actually think it’s not true at all that whenever an indirect joke/statement is ok, then saying it directly must be ok too. A general joke about drugs may be toeing the line in OP’s workplace, but joking that a specific person is addicted to a specific drug is way over the line in just about any workplace.

        In my work, I run into lots of situations where we can speak diplomatically about something sensitive, but getting the same point across in a more direct manner would come off as aggressive and off-putting. Of course, some of my coworkers are still very direct, but it can limit their career potential. YMMV depending on your line of work, though.

      3. Wisteria*

        Even after all these explanations about not personalizing jokes, you still think that Fergus and Martin made the same joke?

  4. Foila*

    I might add violence to the “don’t joke about sex, drugs, or religion at work” list. The mildest stuff is fine, but I had a colleague who had a fondness for jokes about murder, and while none of them were at all graphic, the pattern was really gross.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Good point! We’ve had discussion here before about violent imagery in the office. Honestly, the office is not the best place for edgy humor generally.

      1. Splendid Colors*

        Yep. Scalzi’s Law = the failure mode of “clever” is “a**hole.”

        There are plenty of comics with edgy standup routines–and people buy tickets to go hear that. People at work have not opted in to edgy humor. I’m pretty sure we’ve had at least one letter about “how do you deal with a coworker whose jokes trigger me on a topic where I have a personal tragedy in my past?” If I recall correctly, this has included everything from homicide to drugs to mental health to miscarriage.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, I would not find this amusing. I’m a big true crime aficionado but I leave it at home because . . . a lot of reasons? Maybe one of my coworkers had a friend or relative murdered? I’d feel terrible if I hurt them.

      But also, there are billions of G-rated jokes you could make if you’re really that clever*, so you shouldn’t need to trot out sex, drugs, religion, and homicide to be funny.

      *I am not that clever but I handle it by joking less.

      1. I Wore Pants Today*

        I always tell my teens and my husband, unfortunately, that they need to keep things rated G. It covers a lot of questionable language and topics

        1. JustaTech*

          In college I had a chemistry professor who had a rule/policy called “family lab” which was his way of saying “no swearing/graphic talk in the lab”. A few people complained about this a little, but most people recognized that we the undergrads swore *endlessly* and yeah, we probably shouldn’t and yeah, it was probably super tedious for our professor. He would look the other way if your swear was an exclamation because you dropped a flask or something, but would absolutely call you out for casual swearing.

          Some of use were also aware of why we all swore so much: it was our reaction to the freedom of not living at home. Given the other things we could have done to show off this freedom (drinking, drugs, sex), swearing was really mild, but it was still obnoxious. (I hadn’t realized how bad I had gotten until I went to Disneyland and my friends and I spent at least the first hour covering each other’s mouths to not swear around little kids.)

    3. Curmudgeon in California*

      Yes. I grew up in an environment where “So-and-so pissed me off so bad I’m gonna kill him.” was a normal, off hand comment, and no actual murder was intended.

      This is an absolute no go in the workplace. Even if you substitute “kill” with “slap”, “punch”, “stab” or “shoot”.

      I’ve taken to substituting “sign in the key of ‘off’ at him” for “kill him”. Because while it could be considered obnoxious, it isn’t violence. In reality, I wouldn’t even do that.

      1. Maybe*

        I googled but still don’t know what “sign in the key of ‘off’ at him” means. Is it something related to singing off-key?

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          Exactly.

          “sing in the key of off” means to sing off key.

          Also, I typo’ed sing as sign. Dyslexics untie!

    4. Maybe*

      It shocks me to hear people respond to a request for information with “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” It amazes me that people think it’s funny to suggest that they would murder someone who asked them a question.

      1. philmar*

        …it’s suggesting that the answer to the question is so highly classified that they can’t trust the information with anyone, not that they want to murder someone for having the audacity to ask a question at all. It’s not like it’s earthshakingly clever, but the joke is about secrecy, not murder.

      2. Aitch Arr*

        This theme has been around for at least 140 years.

        The Vicomte of Bragelonne, 1850: “It’s a state secret,” replied d’Artagnan, bluntly: “and as you know that, according to the king’s orders, it is under the penalty of death any one should penetrate it, I will, if you like, allow you to read it and have you shot immediately afterwards.”

        The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1901:
        Sherlock Holmes: I didn’t really ask, Dr. Franklyn, but what exactly do you do here?
        Dr. Franklyn: Oh, Mr. Holmes, I’d love to tell you. But then of course, I’d have to kill you.
        Sherlock Holmes: That would be tremendously ambitious of you.

        **

        That said, it’s still about killing.

    5. RB Purchase*

      Totally agree. Years ago I made a really bad joke about murdering a colleague if she and her BF of 3 months got engaged before me and mine of 5 yrs (we’re married now). It came out of my mouth without thought and nobody laughed because it was not funny. I regretted it instantly and even though I’m sure nobody else remembers it, it’s one of those things I think back on from time to time in the middle of the night and just want to shrivel up inside myself.

    6. Amber*

      Yeah I had a coworker make a joke in a team meeting about the director leaving with a black eye. Everyone laughed. I did not think this guy was joking, and complained about it.

  5. GreenDoor*

    Since he’s so young and newer to the workforce, you might also want to point out that this is one of weird ways where hierarchy and standing matter too. I had to learn this the hard way. I got in trouble for coming into my workplace (a bank) with a nose piercing (back in the 90’s – far less common than today). I asked why Melissa got to wear one all the time and not me? Well, Melissa was a 20 year vet of the company and a Senior Director. Same thing when I got in trouble for sending out a joke over the department email. Ron did that all the time…why couldn’t I? Well, Ron was a Senior VP with 30+ years at the bank. Some people can get away with more “jokes” and risque things simply because they have been around long enough to prove themselves. When you’re new, you just don’t have the clout or standing to make risky jokes.

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      While I agree about the joke email, I would be pissed off if I was told not to wear a nose ring when a senior director did,

    2. High Score!*

      Your last workplace was problematic bc senior employees should be setting the standards for their reports but acting up bc they have seniority. If it’s ok for the director to wear something then it should be ok for everyone. If senior VP tells a joke then he’s telling everyone that jokes are ok.
      The best behavior should come from the top. I remember a quote from somewhere, can’t remember who, … “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Or something like that.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        That’s from the Bible. I googled and it’s Luke 12:48. Just in case anybody is interested.

      2. Despachito*

        Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi.

        I do not like it either, because the superiors should set the standards. I understand why you were irked.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      I don’t think that’s normal tbh. There are times when hierarchy matters but your example doesn’t sound like one. I think you had a right to be irritated with that discrepancy and I would not let that skew your view on what is reasonable.

      (One caveat: if you were customer-facing and she was not then that might be a more reasonable policy, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with hierarchy.)

    4. Irish Teacher*

      This reminds me of when I was subbing in a school and there was one class period on my timetable when I was supervising the “detention room,” where kids got sent if they were acting out in class. This was a small rural school, so most of the time, you’d have no students to supervise during the period and a teacher warned me, “but you’re supposed to remain there for the full period in case a student gets sent out partway through the lesson and there IS a camera in there (because it is where kids are sent when they are acting out, angry, etc) so don’t leave even if you are fairly sure you’ll have no students” and another teacher said, “I leave all the time” and the first replied that “that’s different.” Because the other teacher had a permanent contract whereas I was only subbing and was relying on making a good impression to be asked to sub again in the future. Leaving a room, even an empty one, during your first week or second week in a school…would not look good, even if people there twenty years did that without repercussions.

    5. Shirley Keeldar*

      There’s a lot to be said, though, for when you are new/new-ish to the workforce, to err on the side of caution when it comes to humor. If you must make edgy jokes (you could just not, but if you really must), wait until you have an extremely good sense of when you’re on the edge and when you just stepped over the cliff.

      I do think a fair bit of immature humor is based on the idea of saying things that are “not allowed” or “ooh, you’ll get in trouble for that.” Fergus’s joke falls squarely in this category. It’s not actually that funny, and it does peg the joker as immature, which is the last thing you want in the workplace. Also something to consider.

  6. English Rose*

    I agree the caveat about people laughing along is a really important one. Oftentimes people laugh at inappropriate jokes they don’t actually find funny, out of peer pressure, awkwardness, nervousness, even shock sometimes. I know I’ve done this at times.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, or if three people laugh and one person looks away, the jokester is naturally remembering the three people laughing and assuming the joke went over well.

    2. Lacey*

      Yup! People laugh all the time out of nervousness or not knowing how to handle the situation. I try really hard not to, because I really don’t want people to get the wrong idea, but it still happens every now and again.

    3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      And there’s another thing — sometimes the joke is legit funny AND ALSO inappropriate for the setting.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        This, too. I have a friend who is super clever with off-color jokes (I swear he’s so clever that the rest of us are more clever just by being around him) but never, ever, deploys them at work.

      2. Presea*

        Here here! There are so many jokes that I laugh at in my personal life that I would be absolutely not okay with in a professional setting. My sense of humor doesn’t change from place to place, but what is and isn’t appropriate does.

    4. Daisy*

      Yes, and sometimes folks who are the “butt of the joke” will laugh in self-defense. If I laugh it means the joker isn’t hurting me – which is often the point for bullies who always claim “they were just joking.”

    5. thelettermegan*

      There’s always the chance that the person is laughing AT the jokester b/c they said something so terrible, rather than laughing with the jokester at the joke.

    6. Generic Name*

      I agree. I laughed right along with the off-color jokes a guy who was sexually harassing me said because I was conditioned by the way I grew up to prioritize other people’s (men’s) comfort and to not make waves and to be a Nice Girl. I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do.

    7. Nanani*

      This is often especially true of people with the least power, as they’ll have learned to laugh along as camouflage.
      The girl who laughs along at misogynstic jokes who thinks she’s passing as one of the guys and therefore safer is a classic.

      The person with power, in this case OP since they’re the manager, really needs to shut this down before Katie quits. Even if Katie appears laughing along. For now.

  7. RC+Rascal*

    Here is my observation:

    While issues like this clearly have a significant aspect of “new in the workforce, doesn’t entirely understand norms yet”, frequently they signal deeper underlying character or value issues.

    For example, “Katie is a cokehead” is disrespectful.

    Jokes/comments like this are also attention getting and attention seeking, which over the long term reflects poorly on judgement and ability to handle responsibility. While it’s a joke, things like this make more experienced managers fear the employee is going to joke inappropriately in front of a customer, at a conference, etc. This fear makes the employee less likely to be considered for future opportunities.

    1. Littorally*

      Without more context than the OP provided, this is a pretty alarmist take.

      Calibrating a new employee to what does/doesn’t fly in workplaces in general is a perfectly fine place for the OP to be.

    2. Renata Ricotta*

      Fair, but people develop their character through their 20s as they mature, and flesh out their values as well, in combination with learning more about norms and how words affect people. I could see myself saying something cringey and disrespectful like this 10 years ago as a 23 year old through a combination of ignorance, not thinking things through, and being sort of self-absorbed. None of those are great qualities but I don’t think they would have reflected something fundamental about my personality that couldn’t be improved.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      It could be an underlying issue, but until OP addresses it and gives him a chance to change course we don’t know.
      Alison’s list is actually helpful and instructive. See if he can follow instructions, I’d say. OP can escalate if need be later on.

  8. Substance Use Counselor*

    The other reason this example is inappropriate is because there are lots of people who struggle or have loved one struggle with substance use, and it’s not great to hear about it joked about. “Cokehead” is an incredibly stigmatizing and inappropriate way to describe someone, even if they did have a substance use disorder.

    1. NetClari*

      Couldn’t agree more. “Don’t joke about drugs at work” only addresses one piece of the problem. The other piece is that Fergus needs to learn to be respectful around sensitive topics. I would recommend treating substance use disorders similarly to the way we think of suicide or cancer. These topics bring up painful memories for many people. Some times hard topics do come up at work, but when they do we should discuss them with appropriate tone and respect. The same logic could apply with Fergus’s “x-rated” jokes. Yes, it’s basic manners not to joke about sex in the workplace. But on top of that, you never know who has had a traumatic experience that will be dredged up by your “joke”.

  9. ScruffyInternHerder*

    General guideline – never make it personal, never @ someone.

    I can say “Well, fuck.” with relative impunity.
    I cannot say “Fuck you, coworker” without running into SERIOUS issues.
    But I also work in a world where this is either the dialect, accent, or the language itself. And yes, I HAVE heard people very far up the chain use it.

    Or: Expletives in the office – Interjections are fine. Adjectives and adverbs are probably fine (obviously they should not describe a coworker negatively). Nouns are questionable. Verbs are very much not okay.

    And yes this was actually quite amusing to throw at interns. Typically my advice there was “don’t use it in your tenure here. Not that we’re better than you, or you’re not important enough to use it, but its going to take about your internship’s worth of time to learn the nuance here. So lets just do your future a favor and not.”

    1. Observer*

      ypically my advice there was “don’t use it in your tenure here. Not that we’re better than you, or you’re not important enough to use it, but its going to take about your internship’s worth of time to learn the nuance here. So lets just do your future a favor and not.”

      Excellent advice!

    2. Dawn*

      I’m just imagining you playing the old “Uses Of The Word F**k” bit for interns and being like, “That one’s ok, that one’s borderline, definitely not that one.”

      Having them do a worksheet afterwards.

        1. ScruffyInternHerder*

          No worksheets = plausible deniability over me explaining the various uses of the word f*ck

          :)

    3. not a doctor*

      100% agreed with your first point. You can talk about topics that are or aren’t taboo, but for me the other key lesson that needs to be driven home is: the punchline of a joke at work cannot be an identifiable person.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        100%

        Punchlines and targets of swearing can be things or situations, not identifiable people.

      2. tamarack and fireweed*

        Yeah I think the example illustrates pretty well where lines can lie. A joke that obliquely refers to the mere *existence* of controversial topics, out there in space, pop culture, a literary quote, a news item, is often ok. Attaching a derogatory or problematic label to an individual, *even* when it’s patently absurd, is several layers down into “not ok” land.

        It also sounds to me that the employee is someone who, if someone touches on the first layer of something that could be taken further, they *will* take it further. That’s in itself is problematic behavior that the employee needs to unlearn. (I have friends who are like that, and have clashed with them. We make a mild reference a topic that in itself would be about violence if it weren’t with reference to Looney Tunes or a currently-popular murder mystery, and they take it as license to start joking about someone specific being beaten, or beating someone. I’m not sure where the attraction lies, but there we have it.)

    4. Lacey*

      This is a good distinction. My coworkers swear so much that I was warned about it when I interviewed. But if you swore at someone it would be a problem.

      The location also matters. While most people in our office swear freely, we’re not client facing. And people have gotten in trouble for swearing in front of clients.

    5. Princess Xena*

      I like your point at the end for interns. One thing that was challenging for me when I started my job was figuring out what behaviors were standard office and industry things and what things were specific to individuals and position. Having something laid out as “this is a nuanced thing, but here’s the basic rule where you’ll be fine” is very helpful.

      1. Despachito*

        Definitely.

        I think it is very helpful to be told “this, this and this are definitely not OK” because it is much easier then to be certain that you are fine.

        I have always hated situations when someone scolded me for doing something inappropriate but not telling me exactly what it was.

    6. Jora Malli*

      This is like my early days on internet forums when the common advice was “lurk more.” Play it mostly straight and watch what other people do, but don’t try it out yourself until you’re 1000% sure you know it’s in keeping with how other people do it.

    7. Sara without an H*

      General guideline – never make it personal, never @ someone.

      This is good general advice, especially for someone new to the work force. From the OP’s description, it sounds as though salty speech is OK in this environment, but personal cracks are not. This might be a good way to explain the distinction to Fergus, or any other direct report.

  10. E*

    He should be especially careful about the sex stuff because if he makes the wrong joke or a joke at the wrong person, someone could report him – rightfully so – to HR and then he’ll be in big trouble. Lots of people will fake laugh out of discomfort. Also I wouldn’t appreciate someone making a joke about me being a Coke head even if it wasn’t a joke, especially since Katie wasn’t even present.

  11. Addiction Jokes*

    Addiction has impacted many families, and it is tough to deal with. Some people have lost their loved ones to it, including their children. Many do not talk about addiction due to stigma. And often, it is individuals and families you least expect that are dealing with it. Fergus has no idea if one of his colleagues has been impacted by addiction, either their own or someone else’s. A comment like that which makes light of a serious issue is often hurtful to someone dealing with it. Just my two cents as someone who lived in silence about addiction for a long time.

    1. irene adler*

      Good point! One never knows what their co-workers might be going through or have experienced in the past. Hopefully, Fergus will be more circumspect with his remarks- once the issue is brought up to him. Sometimes folks just need a little remindin’ as to how their words can affect others.

  12. Observer*

    OP, it’s OK to call him on this. You’re not having an issue with him making jokes in general, or being too informal. You are coming down on him for SPECIFIC things he’s doing that go beyond that line.

    To make an analogy: When you go to a high end fancy restaurant You might be expected to know which is the correct fork to use, but at your local fast food joint no one cares. But it’s still not ok to talk with food in your mouth, chew with you mouth wide open, etc. And it’s CERTAINLY not ok to pick your nose.

    You aren’t asking him to have “Fancy restaurant” manners. You’re reminding him that even in McDonald’s, basic manners matter.

  13. Bernice Clifton*

    While I think not talking about sex, drugs or religion (or politics) at work is a good idea, it sounds to me that Fergus needs to be told that coworkers don’t fall into a group of people you should target for teasing by saying something obviously false. It’s not a friend group.

  14. Dawn*

    I haven’t experienced this one so much myself because Canada’s workplaces have a fairly different culture regarding drugs, but I can imagine that in many places in America, with their super-harsh everyone-must-get-drug-tested-regularly policies (pre-employment drug testing is illegal in Canada and practically unheard of during employment) this just seems like a really likely way to get your coworker fired, or at least put through a super-uncomfortable process, if the wrong person from management overhears it.

    So I think in this particular circumstance, without trying to water down the point you’re making about it being inappropriate regardless, mention that as well: not necessarily in YOUR workplace (you would know better than I would) but he doesn’t want to be the guy who one day ends up subjecting his coworkers or himself to mandatory drug testing over a stupid joke.

    1. Linda*

      ?? I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but drug testing in the US is only done in a small proportion of jobs (a quick google search says less than 5%) and for most of those, there is safety related reason for it. And Canada actually has some exceptions to the ban on employment drug testing, again, for safety related reasons….

      1. Dawn*

        5% is significantly more than the near-zero percent here and is a practice condemned by the ACLU in most circumstances. It is something that is relatively well-known internationally, that American companies subject their employees to random drug tests AT ALL.

        I didn’t know the exact numbers when I made the statement, but suffice to say that “many” is subjective and 5% is way beyond “never happens”.

        1. Timbit*

          Can’t you just do the America-bashing by laughing at our beer and gun laws, in the traditional manner?

          1. jane*

            as we’ve seen from mean girls it just takes 1 off color drug joke to lead to your math teacher being required to drug test

          2. Dawn*

            It’s not an attempt at “America-bashing,” although I’ll cop to some amount of what I feel is valid criticsm.

            It’s pointing out that I have reason to believe that there is a very real and present risk of this scenario that I also have to admit I don’t have personal experience with.

    2. Kayem*

      Yeah, I’ve had a few jobs (and one volunteership) that required mandatory drug testing if someone was suspicious (despite them all not being a place where it mattered if someone was using). All of them had management that were rabidly anti-drug and they loved to send someone off to drug testing if they looked too tired or too awake or moved too slow or fast or had a style other than 1960s businessman or breathed slightly differently. All of the coworkers I saw fired for testing positive only got drug tested because someone said something stupid. Most of them had prescriptions for the substances they were testing for, but at-will retail employers generally didn’t care.

    3. just another queer reader*

      This is a very interesting angle!

      For what it’s worth, at my job (office work for a manufacturing company) everyone gets drug tested when they’re hired. Office people rarely/never get drug tested again, but I’m guessing that they drug test manufacturing employees if there’s an accident or injury. In my (limited) experience, most places do a drug test upon hiring.

      I once read an article written by a cable repair technician, who mentioned that everyone used drugs to cope with the stress and physical demands of the job, and the company would drug test and use that to avoid any liability if an employee got injured on the job. Bunch of BS.

      https://www.huffpost.com/entry/cable-tech-dick-cheney-sex-dungeon_n_5c0ea571e4b06484c9fd4c21

      Anyway, I’ve always thought it was a dumb way of doing things, and it’s interesting to hear that our neighbors to the north do it very differently.

      1. JustaTech*

        Weirdly, while reading this comment thread one of my bosses wandered by and we had a short conversation about drug testing and commented that we would both fail (due to prescription meds that cross-react), so it was a good thing that the “everyone must be drug tested at their hiring” didn’t start until after we’d been working here for years.

    4. Vivian*

      American who has been drug-tested half a dozen times chiming in to say that this is not really likely. Most workplaces that drug-test their employees do so as part of a pre-employment screen – once, and never again. Employees may also have to take a drug test in order to work with a new vendor or client, which I have experienced, but this is rare.

      I agree however that since the chance of accidentally impugning one’s coworker is not zero, one should never joke or imply that a coworker is using drugs.

  15. The Other Katie*

    A lot of times people are laughing because they’re nervous laughters who just got super uncomfortable. This would definitely be me in this instance.

    Unrelated: The design change is great. The font is much more readable!

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      This is very true. Or because they’re afraid they’ll be labeled as a stick-in-the-mud or killjoy or prude if they don’t laugh. I mean, how many times have women here laughed uncomfortably at sexist jokes? I’ve done it. I’ve gotten a lot better as I reach my all-out-of-f***s-to-give years at responding with a withering glare and raised eyebrow instead, but it’s hard to get to that point.

  16. Knope Knope Knope*

    “The “even if they laugh along” caveat is an important one to stress, because that’s a lesson that it takes some people a while to learn (and some people never learn it).”

    See also: LWs who think it’s ok to make Nazi jokes because they know a Jewish person who thinks it’s funny.

  17. Person from the Resume*

    Given that Martin made a drug joke first and brought up Katie’s name in the situation, I think it might be better the focus on the the overall theme of the jokes (orgies or other X-rated stuff) and not just reference your most recent example.

    Given someone else did call him out in the moment, you can mention the “Katie is a huge cokehead” too, but not as the most signifigant example.

    1. Lenora Rose*

      I’m pretty sure it’s possible to make clear why “I hope Katie didn’t hear that” is much less of a transgression than “Katie’s a cokehead”. The first implies the speaker committed a transgression and Katie is a stickler for rules; which HR is supposed to be. The worst it implies is “Katie’s no fun”, and mostly it deprecates the speaker. The second puts all the deprecation on Katie.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      Yeah, it sounds like Martin probably joked about himself doing/wanting drugs? Then said “good thing Katie from HR didn’t hear that”. It’s logical to say “good thing HR person didn’t hear” him making a joke about drug use. It’s not bringing Katie into the situation, really. Replying to “good thing she didn’t hear” with “don’t worry she’s a cokehead” is a totally different kind of reference to Katie. The “Martin brought Katie in” angle is a non-starter. It’s a distraction from the actual issue.

      1. tamarack and fireweed*

        And sometimes the initial mild drug joke can even come from a little speech mistake or mispronunciation, where a speaker catches themselves and pulls something into a jocular context to get rid of the embarrassment. Like you talk about tea pots, and you say how much you like yours and you use it every evening … and then you say something “ah I enjoy getting home and relaxing with my pot”. Then silence, and everyone wants to giggle, and you realize what you just said and may very well say “ha, just good that Katie didn’t hear that”. All good! But now Mr Smartypants has to put one over the top, and that’s where things go wrong.

        1. JustaTech*

          Sometimes people will make the “it’s a good thing HR didn’t see/hear that” as a way to lampshade that they know what they just did/said was inappropriate.

          (I had a boss say that after he pointed out a postcard on a corkboard that was a bunch of guys in bathing suits skiing. Like, obvious beefcake photo, but nothing obscene. This was the least “should maybe talk to HR” thing he did, but it was clear that he was trying to show that he knew the rules and was testing me to see if I was “cool”.)

          1. tamarack and fireweed*

            Well, yes. That was already the predominant assumption in many comments I think.

  18. Kayem*

    Too many potential issues to let this continue. Someone overhearing and not realizing it’s a joke is a huge potential issue, especially if the “joke” is passed along by someone else and it becomes less a joke and more office rumor mill. Also, for all they know, Katie used to be a cokehead and struggled to get past that point in her life and would not like hearing jokes about it. Or anyone else who might have issues that are being used as off-color jokes.

    At an old job, I had a colleague “joke” that I was a total party animal that couldn’t hold my liquor. I’m sure in their head, the joke was that I was more of the shy and quiet type, so of course that would be a strange thing for me. But then someone noticed I always order iced tea instead of mimosas during work events and the joke became office gossip rumors. So my not wanting to drink booze during work events became (initially) well-meaning, but clueless coworkers turning into control freaks monitoring my habits until I eventually had to take it to HR.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      Thank you. This is how this kind of stuff starts – it’s like a very twisted game of telephone.

  19. Sloanicota*

    I remember being told as a first time manager that you should either try to address issues right there in the moment, or you have to let them go. While this isn’t universal, it is something I think about a lot. It’s not a great practice as a manager to store up a list of examples your direct report doesn’t know anything about that you’ve been stewing over (not blaming OP, who is new and learning – plus I still do the exact same thing). I like Alison’s advice to make this a more friendly conversation rather than “coming down on him” – as it’s very likely that he’s just misaligned about what is office appropriate, and he sounds like an otherwise good employee.

    1. one L lana*

      Yes. Bringing it up at the review meeting isn’t terrible, but it would be better for OP to address these things in the moment. If it’s going to come up in the review for the first time, I’d acknowledge this dynamic directly and say something like “A few times this [quarter/review period/year] I’ve heard you make some jokes that went a little far for the workplace. I get it — this is an informal place to work and it can sometimes be hard to tell when something is over the line. But it’s happened a few times now, like when you joked about orgies at the team lunch (or whatever) or about Katie being a cokehead last week. What’s going on in those situations?” And then something like “So as a rule, it’s really easy to go too far joking about sex/drugs/violence/your coworkers. Even if it seems like the door is open, don’t be the person who goes there and escalates it. We can all have a good time together, but this is still a workplace and you never know what’s going to be making someone uncomfortable or what someone might misunderstand if they overhear.”

    2. Don’t put metal in the science oven*

      BUT, a manager should also, “Criticize in private, praise in public.” Not humiliate in front of others. Unless it’s a general, “Hey everyone, that’s all too far.” And be prepared for a defensive, “We we’re just kidding.” That’s pretty common and easier to address if you anticipate pushback.

    3. lazuli*

      >>I remember being told as a first time manager that you should either try to address issues right there in the moment, or you have to let them go.

      This isn’t really always true, though, and it got me caught up in unwinnable situations a few times. Sometimes you need time to think about an appropriate response, or to find time in both schedules to talk in private. Sometimes the issue is not really worth addressing if it happens only once, but is a problem if it’s a pattern. I absolutely don’t think you should save up a big list and drop it on an employee’s lap at their annual review, but I don’t think not addressing it immediately means you can never address it. Sometimes not addressing it immediately is actually the wisest course of action.

    4. jane*

      that is interesting to consider. i like that but it’s okay to need time to think about how to address something that you didn’t nail in the moment.

      1. toolittletoolate*

        There can be great value in pausing to figure out the right approach to addressing certain types of situations–you have a chance to respond, rather than just react. Just don’t wait too long…

    5. OP*

      OP here – while I think that advice certainly has it’s place, I kind of can’t imagine being in a situation where a group of colleagues are talking and joking around, and in that moment turning to my report and saying, “whoa, that was a bit much”. It seems like that would actually be making it a much bigger deal (by calling him out in front of everyone, probably humiliating him even if it was said gently). Isn’t it better to bring it up, with the right tone/level of seriousness, at a meeting we already have scheduled to discuss his progress and how he’s settling in?

      1. Wisteria*

        I do think you need some wording for the moment. It is hard to train yourself to speak up in the moment, and it’s hard to get the tone right. However, even though you are a manager, you still have the right to find certain things to be a bit too far and to say something in the moment when anyone says something that you think they should not have. You could have called out Martin in the moment if you found his joke to be a bit much. You can follow up with a direct report during a one-on-one.

      2. Office Lobster DJ*

        Hi OP, I think we just posted at the same time, and my advice was exactly what you don’t want to do! Where I see value in considering a “whoa, too far” in the moment is that (1) It lets the bystanders know that you see this behavior, and (2) it flags it for Fergus so it’s not a shock when it comes up at your meeting for further discussion.

        I will admit, though, that the tone is kind of tricky and probably highly personal. I could see it anywhere from good-natured to unamused to shocked.

        1. Foila*

          Yeah, I think this is something that is good to react to in the moment. You can scale the strength of the reaction to how “off” the joke was, it’s possible to have a light “whoa there” get the message through without really feeling like a rebuke. Or it may not do the job, but no need to be quite so hands off in public, other employees may thank you.

      3. Observer*

        I kind of can’t imagine being in a situation where a group of colleagues are talking and joking around, and in that moment turning to my report and saying, “whoa, that was a bit much”.

        I think that you need to start imagining, then. Most of the time, you are right – as others note, it’s generally far better to wait to think things through and not publicly chastise someone. But there are a lot of situations where you most definitely DO need to call something out in public, on the spot. The most pressing type of issue is if someone is mocking, attacking or otherwise being harmful to someone present. At that point, you just need to stop it, regardless of whether someone is just kidding or not. But there are other types of situations as well, so you need to really be thinking about them

      4. Analytical Tree Hugger*

        I think we all agree there is waaay too much nuance for us to set down The Rule on how to handle this type of situation.

        What I imagine (given the culture you’ve described) is more like:

        Employee A: (says a joke)
        Employee B: (another joke, slightly pushing the line)
        Employee C: (joke that crosses the line)
        Manager: “Alright ya’ll, let’s tone it down a notch or five” (in a light tone, with a subtle I’m-serious-not-joking vibe)

        The manager’s statement is addressing the group as a whole. And, if one employee is consistently crossing the line, it’s a kindness to talk to them privately about what’s not cool (e.g., drugs, sex, religion, violence, personal insults).

      5. Not So NewReader*

        I always thought that the supervisor hat went with me where ever I went. So in a mixed group of people – where some I supervise and some I do not- I’d find something to say.

        “I guess we’ve gone far enough with that one!”

        “Okay, let’s find another topic!” I like this one because it moves forward in some manner.

    6. Office Lobster DJ*

      I think this is an occasion where it’s fine to revisit it with Fergus later, especially since OP seems to be struggling with explaining the exact, infinitely variable nuances why X edgy comment is okay but Y edgy comment is over the line. (Anyone would, OP!) By addressing it as a pattern, OP doesn’t set herself up for an impromptu debate over the appropriateness of each comment.

      What I would suggest is saying something in the moment, like “Whoa, Fergus, too far.” Get it on his radar so that later you can follow up with a longer, private discussion. Don’t let a list build up, but having a few examples can’t hurt.

    7. Jerusha*

      After reading others’ comments, maybe a better formulation would be that you should address issues _promptly_ or let them go? “Promptly”, as opposed to “in the moment”, leaves space for cooling off, choosing your words, giving the feedback in a one-on-one manner (…criticize in private), but not “let’s save everything up as a ghastly surprise come annual review time”

      That being said, in circumstances like this I think there should also be immediate pushback, and it sounds like OP is getting some good advice/phrasing for that as well. But an immediate “Whoa, Fergus, that’s not appropriate” doesn’t preclude – and in fact, arguably demands – a separate, prompt but not “in the moment” one-on-one discussion of what jokes are unacceptable in the workplace.

  20. ACL*

    One thing OP can add is that it’s one thing to jest with people who are present, and another to talk about people not in attendance in the manner Fergus did.

    Perhaps institute the rule that “We don’t talk about Bruno” if Bruno isn’t there.

    People being teased should have the opportunity to either laugh along, jab back or let the person know that they went too far.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      I think that’s a really good point, and I also think being teased at work *is* being teased in an underhand way, even if the target is present, and even if you don’t mean to. That’s confusing. Let me explain! Even if you think you know Katie, you don’t, you just know her work persona. There’s stuff about her that you could trip over like a landmine that she doesn’t want you to know about, because, it’s work and she’s discreet. Also the thing about Katie’s work persona is that it’s probably polite and non confrontational. Even if she feels free calling out jokes elsewhere and jabbing below all the belts in the pub; she’s at work! So… it’s like a fight when someone has their hands tied, even if you’re just playing. My feeling is to keep jokes at work very much in the dad joke realm for this reason. If Katie develops an out of office friendship with this guy, he can call her a cokehead on more neutral turf. I think a big problem for young people in early careers is they’re still used to their friends being where they work; high school, college, grad school etc. Friendly isn’t friends though.

      1. nona*

        Yup – just don’t tease people at work. That’s not the relationship most coworkers have with each other, or that others (who might overhear) might expect coworkers to have and it almost always feels awkward afterwards.

  21. Love to WFH*

    No sentence that starts with “Well, this may not be PC, but” (or, “I’m not racist, but”) ends well.

    “Good thing HR isn’t here!” is a clue, too — and that’s in the OP’s story.

  22. Sassenach*

    I found out today that my daughter was calling people “crackheads” thinking she was saying they were crazy in a fun, benign way….she’s eleven. I have no idea where she got that from or how many people have heard her say that and whom she might have been referring.

    1. Splendid Colors*

      “Crazy” isn’t good either.

      If her 11-year-old judgment thinks someone really has a mental illness, joking about it is unkind.

      If she thinks they have poor judgment about clothes, did something ridiculous, or whatever else she probably means, calling them “crazy” or “crackheads” is a cheap put-down.

      1. Sal*

        I don’t think people are unreasonable to feel that “crackhead” is over the line but “crazy” is sufficiently part of the vernacular that we don’t have to call 11 yos ableist for using it, personally. Probably worth a mention if a parent is inclined, but not IMO something worth using parental enforcement bandwidth on.

  23. Myrin*

    On the topic of what is and what is not appropriate to say and something which Fergus might also need to get a better grip on: being aware of your position relative to others. And I don’t mean that in a “seniority” way necessarily (although that can play a role, too).
    Fergus only started working at this place “a few months ago” and I think that’s generally likely to be too early for jokey commentary about your coworkers, drug-related or not.
    That could be only a minor point here – we don’t know the nature of the others jokes he’s made in the past – but I’ve definitely met people who came into an established group and thought they could and should immediately start behaving like they’ve known everyone forever when they didn’t actually know the nuances to all the different relationships yet and it generally went over like a lead balloon.

  24. Lady Knittington*

    “So far, my relationship with my reports has been fairly pally. They’re generally great”

    I used to temp for a (really horrible) manager called Anita, who’s manager was William. The two spent so much time together; gossiping in the kitchen when they got their coffee, off on a cigarette break; she’d flirt with him and he’d joke back. (He is gay and therefore uninterested).
    He explicitly told me that they weren’t friends as he was her line manager and he would deal with any concerns. Yet, when I *did* raise concerns about her deliberately saying something derogatory about me, knowing that I could overhear her, he dismissed it as ‘she probably didn’t mean it’
    Just because you think your pallyness isn’t getting in the way of your management, doesn’t mean that’s true.

    1. OP*

      OP here – That’s quite a big and specific leap to make, based on almost no information in my original letter. I said I have a “pally” relationship with my reports, as I do with a lot of people in the office. Not that we’re best friends above all else and I’d ignore any criticism or complaints against them. I think the fact that I’m planning on speaking to my employee about his jokes kind of illustrates that?

      1. Observer*

        True. But not everyone knows that. They see you being pally, and that gives them reason to believe that you will handle situations differently than if you were not pally. And in fact that’s true. Yes, you are a good enough manager that you are planning to speak to him. But you yourself called out the fact that being pally with yout reports makes it harder to do.

        You need to re-calibrate your relationship. Both because it does get into the way of actually managing and also because it leaves people with legitimate questions about whether you will appropriately handle problematic situations. What makes it more complicated is that people often won’t see you doing the right thing, because the right thing often requires action that is not public. So people only see the question-raising behavior, not the appropriate management you do on the back end.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I aimed for even tone, informative, supportive but never pally. People get confused easily. I think it’s because some bosses try to be pals. My first job I went out drinking with my boss every night after work. No one else went- which should have been a big clue but I was 18 and dense.

        Fortunately, I decided pretty quick that what I needed was a boss as I already had plenty of friends. So the next job I was a tad wiser. I drew that line myself. In those days there was no one to tell you.

  25. M*

    More reasons to have this conversation:
    – Your culture *at the moment* might tolerate this, but it can change surprisingly quickly, for all kinds of reasons. This kind of thing has changed at my job several times in ~8 years: Reorganizations, acquiring another company, the formation of a diversity/equity/inclusivity program, etc.
    – These comments might not fly at your next job, or maybe even a new position within the same company, so break the habit now.
    – All it takes is one newcomer or one visitor for the comment to land in totally the wrong way.
    – There is almost certainly someone laughing along who doesn’t actually think it’s funny.

    I could go on! You will do him a service by having a quick talk.

  26. Justin*

    One thing that bugs me a bit is the idea that no one would think she’s actually a cocaine user. People have hidden addictions and you never know who might be struggling with one. I take the LW at their word that she isn’t, but that’s why Fergus’s joke is particularly inappropriate.

  27. Birb*

    Also, he could genuinely hurt someone’s feeling with comments like that. There are a lot of medical conditions and medications people can’t help that might make someone shaky, or talk a little fast, etc.

    Making jokes like that even if no one would reasonably think she literally did cocaine could be EXTREMELY offensive to someone with a medical condition who can’t help their more visible symptoms.

  28. Chickens are friends not foodz*

    Saving this as a script for use with my new direct report who made an extremely inappropriate joke about male chickens last week, and then doubled down on repeating it (like she thought I didn’t understand it the first time) after I said it was inappropriate discussion for the office.

    Like, objectively, it was a hilarious joke! I laughed about it later when I was at home recounting it to my spouse. But it was so not ok for work.

  29. Heffalump*

    If the OP doesn’t have the talk with Fergus and Fergus moves on to a more buttoned-down workplace, he’ll have problems.

    I used to be a big true crime aficionado, and when Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, I had a field day for quite a while. At some point some friends said, “Enough, already.”

    1. OP*

      OP here – I’d be really interested to hear what that was like from your side actually! Were they friends in your workplace, and if so were any management? Regardless, when they said that, did you think they had a point, or were you like “hmm these guys are so stuck up, it’s not like I’M a murderer!”

      1. Heffalump*

        I waited until I got home to give your question the time and thought it deserves. I’ll be telling you what my thought process was at the time, and I’m not saying that I was blameless.

        I had an autism screening a couple of years ago and learned that I was on the spectrum. In hindsight, I think that if I weren’t, I would have caught on much sooner that the Dahmer jokes weren’t cool.

        Most of the feedback came from my friends, not people at work. If someone said straight up that they didn’t care for them, I didn’t tell them to that person any more.

        I once told a Dahmer joke to a barista at my local Starbucks, and she said that while it didn’t exactly hit home for her personally, she knew someone who had lost a family member to Dahmer. I could certainly see how her friend would have been upset at the joke, but previously I would have said, “What are the odds?”

        Part of my thinking was that, say, anti-Semitic jokes are just flat wrong even if I find a fellow bigot who doesn’t mind them, and “But you don’t look Jewish” would be no defense. The Dahmer jokes, on the other hand, would be (understandably) offensive to a select subcategory of people.

        There was a letter on 10/30/19 titled, “My mother is tracking my comings and goings at work.”

        The LW said she’d talked to her mother about it, and it was like when someone gets The Talk about making inappropriate jokes, and their response is “I made one (1) bad joke and hurt this one (1) person’s feelings” instead of “this pattern of behavior is inappropriate.” Some of that was at work here.

        No, I didn’t think, “Hmm these guys are so stuck up, it’s not like I’M a murderer!” I was aware that my sense of humor was darker than most people’s, but I just didn’t see the harm. I didn’t think they’d take me for a murderer.

        In hindsight, I’d say the issue was the sheer darkness of the content and the unrelenting Dahmer jokes, month after month. I belonged to a friend group that got together often, and one day someone lost it and said, “I never want to hear another Dahmer joke!” We’d been friends for some years, and she had a track record of being reasonable, so I thought I’d better pay attention.

        I touched base with her a couple days later and led off with, “You leave me with the feeling that I could stand to clean up my act,” and we went from there. She said she wasn’t categorically against sick jokes, but joking about something that really happened was another matter.

        Speaking of the issue of someone outside the work group overhearing: Once in the 1980s I was in a small café, it went quiet, and I distinctly heard someone in the kitchen tell a horrific Holocaust joke. If I repeated it Alison would moderate it even if she weren’t Jewish. When my 20-something server came out, I called him over and said, “I’m not saying you told that joke, but I heard every word. For all the joke teller knew, anyone in the dining room could be Jewish. They’d go straight to the manager or owner, and the guy would be fired.” The server seemed to see the point and assured me that he hadn’t told the joke.

        I hope this hasn’t been a case of, “I asked him what time it was, and he told me how to build a watch.”

  30. Me ... Just Me*

    Am I the only one who has a problem with the F-bomb being in routine use by the manager? Maybe? — I absolutely would use the PG-13 litmus test in my own verbalizations if I am going to be holding others’ accountable for their word/topic choices.

    Of course, my background is in medium/large organizations in a conservative industry. And, one of my topics of discussion for my next staff meeting is about use of profanity, especially in front of our “clients” — so this is top of mind for me, as our meeting is on Wednesday.

    1. Two Dog Night*

      It depends so much on the organization. Where I work, we don’t toss the f-word around all the time, and we’d certainly never use it in front of clients, but it does make fairly regular appearances. I don’t use it often, and only around people I know are comfortable with it, but hearing it is a complete non-event. A manager using it regularly isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as they’re not using it at people.

      1. Becca Rosselin-Metadi*

        This is my office as well. We toss it around with colleagues we are comfortable with and know they will say it as well, but never in front of the clients.

    2. Hardened & Shameless Tea-drinker*

      No, you are NOT the only person here who doesn’t want their workplace turned into a cesspit of filthy language! I totally lose respect for people who don’t know how to talk without spewing filth and I don’t take them seriously. If I want to hear that kind of language, I’ll watch porn! I absolutely don’t want to listen to it at work…at least if you’re watching a porn flick you can turn the damn thing off!

    3. Ann Perkins*

      I don’t like it being used around the office either. I work in compliance and have been around lots of the “haha, pretend you didn’t hear that!” type jokes and those bother me way less than being around profanity in the office.

    4. Observer*

      Am I the only one who has a problem with the F-bomb being in routine use by the manager?

      No. I think that a reasonable adult should be able to express themself without the need to use this kind of language on a regular basis.

      I absolutely would use the PG-13 litmus test in my own verbalizations if I am going to be holding others’ accountable for their word/topic choices.

      As much as I despise the use of foul language as a regular feature of someone’s conversation, I disagree. Someone using foul language does not disqualify them from pointing out that their team member is crossing some significant lines that go well beyond just using foul language. Jokes about people, jokes that could harm reputation, comments or “jokes” that are racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted are all things that even the most ardent user of f-bombs has standing to call out.

      1. Me ... Just Me*

        It’s more of the thought of “lead by example”, especially when we’re talking about workplace norms. Not that one shouldn’t address the joke-making, but that for someone who cannot discern why such joke-making isn’t allowed, the lesson might bear less weight coming from someone who is not putting forth the most professional image, themselves.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      On the surface it does not bother me- but I already know that it changes the work environment in a downward way. And that does bother me. I do think that people get tired of listening to it. Let’s talk like adults, I catch myself thinking.

      My friend’s friend over uses f-bombs. My friend is no stranger to f-bombs himself. But he will comment after talking with his friend, “Gosh that was hard to listen to.” Yeah, with f-bombs scattered like litter, it’s easy to lose the meaning of what is being said.

      In grammar school we had a nun who used the word “alright” way too much. “Alright. Two, alright, plus three equals five, alright.” Probably the worst teacher ever, imo. We started counting the number of times she said alright in a 40 minute period. Normal counts were about 145 times in a class period, so not quite 4 times per minute. She caught us keeping track on paper and yelled at us. But she never tried to break her habit.
      A good number of students had problems learning in that class.

      It’s not much better in the outside world. Any word used excessively is going to make it harder for the listener to grasp the message. It’s that distracting. And yes, this can have unexpected negative consequences.

      1. philmar*

        I don’t think a nun would want to break a habit, can’t imagine she has enough money to replace them regularly

  31. jane*

    as someone who has been the Katie (subject of a joke about doing drugs that was quite clearly a joke) – he can’t do that again – it’s really uncomfortable and super uncool. it would negatively impact my relationship at work with Fergus whether I were Katie or a bystander.

  32. Anonymousse*

    Great to address this now, before he gets even more used to using sexual terms and joke drug accusations (I actually would be so angry if it was me he said that about, even as a joke because of what people would think, but I’m not sure if you should tell her) Not everyone thinks those things are funny or understand or want to hear these weird off color remarks. A busybody who doesn’t know Catherine well could very well have heard and believes she is addicted to cocaine and it’s well known knowledge in the office! I mean people believe a lot of things. Didn’t we have just one about a joker who made one too many cannibal jokes in one day? Just keep it clean, people. I promise it’s not too hard. And you never know who is dealing with something really hard that an off color joke could really trigger.

    Deliver this as calmly as any other feedback. It’s not appropriate in the workplace and it will hold him back, end of.

    1. Becca Rosselin-Metadi*

      I was going to say you were too serious, and then I remembered a joke a colleague made about having a gun (she did NOT have a gun, it was a bad joke) but the person she said it to took her seriously and she was going to get fired for having a weapon in the office when I told the person who was going to fire her that it was a joke. So yes, I agree with you. Jokes about anything like that (and this was 15 years ago) are not funny and keeping it clean is not hard.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Sadly, i know enough people wrapped up in coke that when I read this I instantly thought, “Is this true?”
      And these people are having lives, careers and families. I have also seen too many times that the truth is buried in a joke.

      One place I worked they joked and talked about the CEO embezzling. This when on and on. One day the government came knocking on the door- yep, the CEO was embezzling. So maybe I am too serious? Or maybe I use people’s jokes now as a caution light and to remind myself to stay aware.

  33. Miss Suzie*

    What if Katie was working through a substance abuse problem and learned someone was referring to them as a cokehead? Or they had a relative or friend with that problem? You never know what is really going on in someone’s life.

  34. Becca Rosselin-Metadi*

    I have nothing to add except the time a former colleague printed out (in color) a subtle picture of Snow White having an orgy with the Seven Dwarfs. You had look a little closely at it, but once you did, you couldn’t unsee it. I told her it was inappropriate at work, she called me a prude. Maybe I am (I’m not), but I still think it’s inappropriate in a professional office.

  35. Joielle*

    In my last position my manager was someone who sounds similar to you, OP, and it’s kind of tripping her up right now. She was a peer of the rest of the group before being promoted to manager and continued to be very pally with everyone. That was fine when it was just the original group and we all knew each other well, but then we hired some new staff and we ended up with one person who’s kind of a Fergus. A decent employee but came in WAY too strong with over-familiar inappropriate jokes and just not great interpersonal skills.

    The manager ignored it and laughed along at first (because I think she was uncomfortable being a boss and not a pal) and now it’s really escalated into a lot of teasing, pranks, etc. The coworker has ignored any attempt to gently get her to reign in the jokes, and the manager is seemingly incapable of telling her directly to knock it off. It quickly made things unpleasant in the department (which is not the only reason I left, but it was one of the reasons for sure).

    So my advice is to have the conversation now, even if it feels awkward! What’s even more awkward is ignoring it and letting Fergus make people uncomfortable (and letting Fergus think his jokes are fine), and then having to walk it back later. Or risk losing other staff.

  36. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    I think the ultimate take away is don’t call coworkers coke heads, but really, Fergus isn’t making a distinction between teasing and insult comedy. BECAUSE IT US REALLY DIFFICULT TO DO. And the office isn’t the place to hone your comedy craft. But OP, if Fergus insists, here’s a rule of thumb:
    you can make a comment that any sane person will definitely see as hyperbolic and take as a joke* if it’s about yourself. Because you can defend yourself. You can own it and clean up the fall out. Otherwise, just don’t.

    *If you think you are the ultimate judge of what a sane person will definitely see as hyperbolic and take as a joke, you’re wrong.

    1. OP*

      OP here – that’s interesting! I don’t think Fergus will argue that he should be able to make these comments/jokes. Like I said in the original letter, I think he will be receptive to feedback.

      What I really DON’T want to do in this review meeting is get into a philosophical/cultural discussion of like, punching up vs punching down, when the joke is at your own expense vs someone else, “but what IS comedy????” I think that will muddy my point and make feedback way more difficult :| But your rule is useful!

      1. jane*

        you’re his manager so you don’t need to entertain a debate – you can always say very politely but firmly that “this isn’t up for debate. as your manager, i am telling you how things need to be here”. a reasonable person will understand. someone who argues will probably have other problems in the workplace.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yep. And the “as your manager” line is a solid wrap up for most discussions that get derailed.

          Depending on the person and how they present their point, I have used a soften version that goes like this:

          “I see your point. But I stand by what I have said initially. This is required of everyone, not just you. And you will notice that I hold myself to the same standard. So from here on no more X behavior.”

          Often they would ask, but so-and-so does it. “Okay, I will watch and I will speak to them when I see it. But you will never know if I speak to them, just as they will never know I spoke with you.”

          If it was poor behavior by a boss, I’d tell them to tell me and I would handle it as best as I could. I had to be careful not to make promises that I could not deliver.

  37. CommanderBanana*

    I have worked with several Ferguses, and several times have realized that Ferguses are testing the waters to see how much inappropriate behavior they can get away with. Off-color joke? Great! No one pushed back! Sexual harassment that can be written off as “just joking!”? Okay! And then it escalates.

  38. Nanani*

    Excellent framing.
    Honestly, as the saying goes, “intent isn’t magic”.
    Everyone (as far as you can tell) may have known it was just meant as a joke but that doesn’t mean it magically won’t hurt anyone – especially if one person is repeatedly joked about regarding drugs or something like that.

    Just. Don’t?

  39. A. Tisket & A. Tasket, LLC*

    OP, you described your relationship with your reports as “pally”…BUT you’re really NOT their pal / bro / drinking buddy, etc. You’re their manager, which means that you can’t act as if you’re their peer. Because you aren’t!

    And you don’t have to go to extremes to establish your authority; you needn’t be buttoned-up rigid to be respected. But you DO need to act AND talk like an authority figure worthy of respect (again, not like a drinking-buddy-bro). And that means losing the obscenities (four letter words and others) when you’re at work. Frankly, you should be able to make your points and express yourself without resorting to “f-bombs”! No, you don’t have to act like a fuddy-duddy, but you DO have to have a little dignity if you want to be seen as the authority you really are – and if you want your words to carry the weight that they should among both your subordinates and your supervisors.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I have worked with a few very cool people who never swore. And in some jobs I never swore at work.

      At one job we were public facing 100% of the time. The floor was carpeted so you didn’t always here someone in the store. My cool boss (one of my fav bosses of my life) was busting on me for not cussing. At the same time he dropped a whole stack of paper that he had just sorted. “Awww, F!”

      As he picked the papers up off the floor he asked, “Why do I hear two people laughing when it’s only you and me here?”

      I said, “I rest my case.”

  40. Ally McBeal*

    I wrote comedy in college and have struggled to hone my filter (and rein in my need for affirmation via laughter) in my career. I have learned that sometimes it’s easier to make a blanket rule of “no jokes ABOUT coworkers.” You never know when a lighthearted poke at, say, someone’s clunky shoes will turn out badly because that coworker has struggled with podiatric issues.

    This “rule” can ease or allow exceptions once you know for sure that you have a strong rapport with someone or the full picture of a situation, but better to stay quiet than risk offense, especially early on in your career.

    1. Ally McBeal*

      (Also there’s a big difference between swear words and making someone the subject of a joke or funny comment! Swearing doesn’t mean you lack authority to tell someone that commenting about someone else can lead to some serious pratfalls.)

  41. Budgie Buddy*

    This joke just seems really juvenile to me—very much a recent grad who hasn’t calibrated to work culture yet and needs to be told “Yeah no. Not cool.”

    There’s something very attention-seeking in his behavior. As if he’s thinking “Oh someone made a dig at Katie? That’s my cue to make an even bigger, shocking, dig at Katie! That’ll really get them going!” So he blurts out the first generic insult that comes to mind that isn’t technically a slur. The punchline is just imagining that someone the group knows is secretly doing something most people view as degrading. Ugh

  42. Really?*

    OP, you make a point of saying, “Let me stress — good natured! Not things like unkind personal comments, or dissatisfaction with someone’s work.”

    But, this is an unkind remark about Katie. And they are disparaging Katie’s work. The excuse of “I was just joking” is how people passive aggressively try to get away with making unkind, discriminatory, ugly remarks.

    And no, not everyone knows it is a joke. A lot of people might think this guy has inside information on Katie. After all, “where there’s smoke there’s fire” is a phrase used to turn “jokes” into gossip that harms people.

    Jokes are funny. None of this is funny.

  43. June*

    I don’t know if anyone else has said this, but there was a popular webseries that ran for years targeting college age audience with a charecter named Katie. A recurring joke in it was having a charecter end with a punchline that “Katie is a cokehead” or something similar. Not that it makes the joke more appropriate for work, but I have to wonder if he wasn’t like repeating a meme/quoting a joke without thinking.

  44. kiki*

    Especially since Fergus is new to his professional career, think of this talk not as a disciplinary thing, but as a kind piece of advice. I look back fondly on the more senior people who gave me this sort of advice early in my career. Even if I was embarrassed in the moment, I really appreciate it now.

  45. Applecake*

    This is going to sound snarky but I’m totally serious. My social skills aren’t great. What’s the difference between jokes about drugs and dropping the f-word in terms of things that have the potential to make people uncomfortable but they might not feel safe to bring it up?

  46. Lizzianna*

    Martin’s response (I’m glad HR didn’t hear) was him signaling he wasn’t comfortable with the joke. You may want to point that out, especially if Fergus says everyone was laughing.

  47. DrFresh*

    Caveat: I haven’t dug through the comments before commenting.

    For the yearly HR/Harassment training at my workplace, this sort of joking was explicitly pointed out as creating (or with the potential to create) a hostile working environment – whether it offended or not. You (the Royal You) could be written up for doing it and possibly fired. Obviously, I don’t know your workplace norms/rules, but just an FYI. (I work in healthcare).

  48. Beth*

    In addition to addressing things with the employee as recommended, it’s important for a new manager to understand that their own relationships have changed through their promotion with most people in the org. As a manager, people now look to you as an example and representative of “management”. Even things that were acceptable for you to do as an individual contributor in terms of behaving very casually start to take on new meaning. I didn’t always appreciate that early on and had to learn the hard way. Addressing issues promptly (even with people who are not my own directs) and accepting that I had to put aside prior friendships with peers were some of the more challenging aspects of becoming a new manager.

  49. Little Marshmallow*

    I’ve managed many fresh out of college kiddos. I usually let them joke around with me and their colleagues with very little interference but do watch for them to approach the “line”. The first time or two, I usually just say something like “you found the line, please back it up a bit”. I don’t say it with uncomfortable laughter though, it’s honestly probably more of a parental tone, calm but firm with a straight face. Then just go back to acting normally. I’ve found it effective at reigning them in 99% of the time.

    I’m not sure if it matters for taking the advice but I’m female and usually it’s my male reports that have to be guided (that number May be skewed because probably 90% of my reports have been male).

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